Sunday, December 06, 2009

Why basses can’t remember their part

It always seems to be the basses who forget their part. I used to think it was a bloke thing, but now I realise that there is often a good reason why it’s so hard to remember.


droning on

The bass part often follows the root notes of the chords as they progress through the piece. If it’s a relatively straightforward song, then there will sometimes only be three chords. This means that the basses only  get to sing three notes!

Even worse, if the basses are singing a constant drone to a song, which often happens in Georgian singing for example, they may only get two notes!

dude, where’s my tune?

With just two or three notes, it’s very hard to create any kind of interesting, memorable memory. Most of the time the basses are wondering how long they have to stay on this note and when they have to move onto the next one. There are often no clues for when to change, and no easy way of remembering.

The tops and the altos usually have an interesting melody to remember (with lots of notes!). The tenors can too, but in any case usually have some sexy blues notes in there to signal where they are.

But the poor basses have no road map of where to go. No wonder they find it hard to remember a featureless landscape.

the invention of musical notation

In the majority of community choirs that I’ve run, most people can’t read music. Give them a written score and it’s like hieroglyphics to them.

But very often I notice that singers in the bass section all have scraps of paper in their hands covered in scribbles. On closer inspection, the scribbles are a series of horizontal lines of different lengths, some above others. Something like this:

bass notation

“Blimey!”, I say, “musical notation.”

“Oh, no”, they reply, “just some scribbles to make it easier for me to remember. I can’t read music.”

I ask them to explain how their scribbles help them.

“Well, the higher the line, the higher the note. The longer the line is, the longer I have to stay on that note. When the line changes, that’s when I change note. And the size of the gaps between the lines tell me if it’s a big jump in pitch, or a little jump.”

As I said before: musical notation!

Of course, these scribbles need a little tweaking before they become accurate enough, but it suffices for most bass parts as an aide memoire. You can see a more advanced version of this pictorial representation in my post Complex songs and learning by ear: musical maps.

quality time

Since the bass part often doesn’t have that many notes, choir leaders sometimes leave the teaching of the bass part until last. They also maybe don’t spend that much time on it since they believe it’s an ‘easy’ part. Sure, it might be easy-ish to learn as it doesn’t have many notes, but that can mean it’s fiendishly difficult to remember!

I always make sure when teaching a harmony song that I don’t always start with the tune (whichever part it’s in). Especially if it’s a brand new song that nobody has heard before, it doesn’t really matter which part you start with. So sometimes we kick off with the bass part.

If it’s one of those simplistic bass parts with very few notes, it’s hard to teach in isolation as there is no melody to anchor it to. On the other hand, it’s a great opportunity to really nail the rhythm of a piece before all the other parts come in. And when they do, they will have the benefit of a solid bass part to work with.

If you leave the bass part until last, it means they will have heard the other parts repeatedly so will often end up with some kind of melody locked in their heads already. So when they come to learn their own, relatively monotonous part, they may well go up and down in all the wrong places!

Treat your basses well and they will return the compliment.

not enough voices to go round

Certainly here in the UK many choirs find it difficult to recruit enough men. Which means that the bass section can be quite sparse.

Now the other sections have no problems remembering their parts. Or do they? There are lots of them, so as long as, say, 75% of them can remember, you don’t really notice those who are struggling. If someone is not too sure of their part, they can hide a little and take their time without being noticed.

But if your bass section only has six singers, it can be quite exposing. And if 75% of them can’t get it right, it can easily put the others off.

So maybe it’s not fair to judge the bass section in the same way as those other burgeoning sections of the choir.

confound those singers!

If you have a choir who are up for it, and a relatively straightforward harmony song, you can teach all the parts to all the singers. This will often give other parts an appreciation of the difficulties faced by the basses.

Another option is to switch parts around and give the bass part to someone else. This isn’t always possible, but giving the basses the tune from time to time can boost their confidence.

I’ve just taught a three-part version of The Water of Tyne. It has a lovely bass part which meanders all over the place. Too good not to share! So on different verses I have the basses singing the tune, and the tops singing the bass part an octave higher.

good arrangers write good tunes

You may be a lucky bass who has never had any of the problems I’ve outlined. This probably means that you’ve only ever sung songs that have been arranged well.

Any really good choral arranger will make sure that every part is singable and memorable with a good, interesting self-contained melody. Every singer will have something meaty to learn, and every part will stand on its own.

I learnt an arrangement of The Copper Family’s Christmas Song arranged by Alison Burns some years ago (available in Raining Bliss and Benison). I was taught the bass part and for years – until I came to teach the song myself – I assumed that the melody was in the bass. It turns out that the melody is sung by the tops, but the arrangement is so good that the bass part feels like a melody of its own!

or it could be a man thing!

Of course, I could be completely wrong and maybe after all it's just thing about men and their bad memories.

What’s your experience? Are you a bass who has trouble remembering their part? Does your choir have to wait while the male basses get reminded of that they’re supposed to be singing?


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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